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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

Monday 9 May 2022

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Parades And Propaganda
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At the annual military parade in Red Square, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated the Kremlin's narratives about the war in Ukraine but made no big announcements and signaled no changes in strategy. Ian Garner, an author and expert on Russian war propaganda, joins host Steve Gutterman to discuss.

A T-80BVM tank moves during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade on Red Square in Moscow in May 2021.

While waging a devastating and unprovoked war in Ukraine, Russia prepares to mark the anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat 77 years ago. And the Kremlin's effort to weld its narratives of the two conflicts together rings badly wrong in Kyiv and the West.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

On Parade

"Nazis," "liberation," and an unprovoked offensive cast as a valiant defense against an aggressor bent on destroying Russia, or at least bringing it to its knees: President Vladimir Putin's government insists it's not at war -- but judging by its false claims and rhetoric about the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin wants the populace to think the country is fighting World War II.

In fact, of course, what's happening is an assault on an independent country, with evidence of war crimes mounting by the day as civilians are killed by bombs, missiles, mines, shells, and gunshots to the back of the head.

For Putin, though, the implied analogy with World War II may seem useful as a way to hide those truths from Russians and present a different narrative -- one grounded in the story of what Moscow calls the Great Patriotic War, which itself is based on the undeniable fact of the massive Soviet role in the Nazi defeat but has been altered and embellished by the state -- and Putin himself -- since he came to power more than two decades ago.

Participants, including President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, watch honor guards marching past during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall on Victory Day in 2019.
Participants, including President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, watch honor guards marching past during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall on Victory Day in 2019.

Particularly in the past 10 years, following his return to the presidency in 2012, Putin has used the Victory Day ceremonies on May 9 to advance his portrayal of World War II, even as the generations of Russians who remember what the war was really like disappear.

It's a black-and-white version in which the Soviet Union's enormous contribution to the Allied victory means that its legacy -- including the decades of oppressive postwar dominance over Eastern Europe -- cannot be a subject of debate, let alone criticism.

Some years, he has also used his speech at the Red Square military parade to issue veiled suggestions that the United States -- one of the Soviet Union's World War II allies, of course -- is nowadays a potential threat to world security, a disruptive force determined to dominate the planet.

That idea may be set out in sharper relief on May 9, when Putin presides over ceremonies against the bloody backdrop of the war he has unleashed in Ukraine.

In terms of Putin's propaganda, it may not be much of a stretch: Often, Russian officials and state media have been depicting Russian's military operations in Ukraine not as an offensive against Ukraine but as defensive actions against NATO aggression.

A fighter among Moscow-backed separatist troops is seen atop a tank during fighting near the Azovstal steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol on May 5.
A fighter among Moscow-backed separatist troops is seen atop a tank during fighting near the Azovstal steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol on May 5.

That's one of the ways the Russian state has described its war in Ukraine -- in fact, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a remarkable remark in service of that outlandish idea late last month, asserting that Russia does not consider itself to be at war with NATO but that "NATO, it seems, considers itself to be at war with Russia."

Putin and his government have also said one of the main goals of what they call Russia's "special military operation" is "de-Nazification" -- an assertion accompanied by wildly exaggerated claims about the influence of far-right groups in Ukraine, where no such party holds seats in parliament and the president was democratically elected.

The Lower Depths

Kyiv and the West say this is outrageous, and critics of the Kremlin point to signs that suggest it is also hypocritical, such as state-organized events and symbols of support for the war that they say contain echoes of fascism.

This framing of the war added to ire in Kyiv and the West this week when Lavrov asserted that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's Jewish heritage did not undermine the Russian assertion that the country must be "de-Nazified."

Lavrov also suggested that Adolf Hitler had Jewish roots and said that "wise Jewish people say that the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves" -- remarks that drew angry reactions from Israel, a country with which Putin has cultivated closer ties throughout his time in office.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy takes part in a commemoration ceremony for the victims of Babyn Yar, one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Holocaust, in Kyiv on September 29, 2021.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy takes part in a commemoration ceremony for the victims of Babyn Yar, one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Holocaust, in Kyiv on September 29, 2021.

On May 2, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Lavrov's remarks were "unforgivable and scandalous and a horrible historical error," adding, "The lowest level of racism against Jews is to blame Jews themselves for anti-Semitism."

Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, called the comments "a severe blow to the victims of the real Nazism" and said Lavrov was spreading "an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory with no basis in fact."

After they spoke by phone on May 5, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office said Putin had apologized for Lavrov's remarks. The Kremlin readout of the call made no mention of the matter.

Speaking at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe the same day, U.S. Ambassador Michael Carpenter decried what he called the Kremlin's "dehumanizing lies about Nazism and Ukraine."

"[The] Russian government contends that [Ukrainian] national identity is interchangeable with Nazism and tries to convince the Russian people to believe that the Ukrainian nation -- by its very definition -- is intent on waging genocide against Russians," Carpenter said. "We have seen these rhetorical devices before in history. And this hate speech is deployed on a repeat loop by Russian government officials and state media."

He contended that "it is clear there is a connection between the dehumanizing rhetoric spewed by the Russian government and its representatives...and the atrocities being committed by Russia's soldiers in Ukraine.

'Unspeakable Cruelty'

Russia's claim to be liberating parts of Ukraine where it has seized control is also one that has been met with angry derision from Ukrainians and others who point to allegations and evidence of the opposite -- oppression, broadly, and more specifically violent acts such as abductions, rapes, and killings by Russian forces.

On May 3, Human Rights Watch said it had documented cases of rape, summary executions, and other acts that "amount to unspeakable, deliberate cruelty and violence against Ukrainian civilians" by Russian forces in areas they occupied.

The clearest evidence of war crimes so far has emerged after Russian forces have retreated from areas of Ukraine that they occupied at least briefly, such as cities and towns around Kyiv and Chernihiv in the north, including Bucha, Borodyanka, and many others.

A boy looks at the body of his mother lying in a coffin as his father prays during her funeral in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on April 20.
A boy looks at the body of his mother lying in a coffin as his father prays during her funeral in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on April 20.

Rights groups fear that many cases have gone unreported because Russian forces at least partially control the areas where they may have taken place, such as Mariupol, the Azov Sea port city that has been largely razed by Russian bombardments.

In terms of Russian propaganda, World War II and the war in Ukraine may come together in what one scholar wrote would be a "grotesque and horrific" spectacle -- a Victory Day parade in Mariupol, and where Ukrainian authorities say that thousands of civilians have been killed -- and that many are still trapped despite evacuation efforts amid the ongoing Russian offensive.

Whatever images the Kremlin creates in Mariupol on May 9, for some they will never replace indelible impressions from photos and footage taken during the onslaught that began there on the first day of the invasion, February 24.

In a video report from March, for example, a woman sits in a darkened hospital corridor, sobbing and cradling her surviving child in her arms as she describes the artillery strike that killed her other child -- and a child from another family -- as they sought shelter in a basement.

"You don't know where to run," she says. And then, "Who will bring the children back? Who?"

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About This Newsletter

Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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